Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Congratulations to 2014 Classics Graduates

Congratulations to McMaster Humanities graduates and the Classics Department Class of 2014. Convocation marks the completion of formal education for many of us and provides the occasion to look forward to new endeavours as professionals. Commensurate with this transition, now is the time to put all of the exercises of the last four years into practice . This liminal moment brings to mind words used to describe Charles Eames, one of the godfathers of midcentury modern design and an artist with an enormous legacy. He adhered to the theory that in professional endeavours one should not sell one’s extant skill set, which is a limited repertoire, but instead sell yourself based on the things you don’t know, which is an unlimited repertoire. Sell your desire, your drive, your ability to learn, and your enthusiasm to successfully complete tasks at hand. In this way, you are never unprepared or unqualified. 

This perspective is central to a Humanities degree. While there are a few professional settings that require you to know the date of the Kritios Boy, the skills employed to identify, scrutinize, and prepare a rigorous analysis of the sculpture will contribute to any undertaking. These tools are essential to building your value in your community, your city and your professional setting. Curiosity, drive, and stick-to-itiveness are the skills for success in Classics, and they are the same that will ensure it continues beyond the university.


Friday, June 6, 2014

The Great Beauty, Part I

The first half of 2014 might be considered a good moment for Classics on film. The 300: Rise of Empire revives the great battles of the early Classical period (although I am not sure exactly which empire the title refers to: is it Athens? Sparta? Hollywood? Here I feel a bit like Croesus must have at Delphi). Pompeii uses the eruption of Vesuvius as the dramatic backdrop for a Roman sword and sandal drama, and forthcoming films on Hercules (nee Herakles) and Hannibal promise that the ancient world will remain prominent at the megaplex for some time to come. But the film that Classicists and anyone that loves the ancient world should see is La Grande Bellezza, The Great Beauty.

The film is, well, beautiful, not the least for numerous shots of sun-drenched Rome glowing in that colour that is wholly owned by Rome and Rome alone; the film gloriously captures the Eternal City shining its brilliant yellow-tinted reddish hue from apartments, palaces, and rooftops. Rome’s trademarked colour is at its most conspicuous when raking sunlight – either early in the day or just before dusk – hits its red bricks, white travertine and warm terracottas. The result creates a sense of place like no other and establishes Rome as a magnetic force. Beyond the aesthetics, watching the film is a humbling experience. It contrasts Rome’s long-lived and beautiful artistic and architectural traditions with our transience and the fact that we have but one single moment to reflect upon, embrace, and perhaps even challenge a tradition greater than us all. Only Rome could provide the historical context for a film to move us by presenting the weight of history and at the same time demonstrate that our “maiores” have wrestled with these ponderous questions long before it became our turn. As classicists, we are in a place to appreciate that history: our eyes and ears are open and we are receptive to the message because we know the value of the past. 

Rome is truly one of the protagonists (another is the incomparable Toni Servillo, who has Marcello’s ennui with Toto’s rubbery features). In the film, debates swirl around living in Rome and how it affects and ultimately changes someone. One character feels that that city is the only true expression of Marxism — Rome pulls everyone to the centre. Another felt he had to leave Rome because of the city’s unstoppable decline. Decadent Rome. Crumbling, just like the ruins of the Colosseum viewed from Jeb’s terrace, or the buildings in the Roman Forum. The great beauty of their debate is that it is anything but new. Rome was crumbling for Marcello in La Dolce Vita by Fellini, Rome was decaying for Piranesi as he made woodcuts, and Rome was certainly dying for Juvenal. Rome was in the depth of depravity for Livy, “our solutions are worse than the disease” and for Cicero, too: “o tempora o mores.” The Eternal City presents its perpetual decadence to us and continues to inspire another generation to contemplate time, life, love, death, and our place in a greater spectrum. And yes, it also makes us reflect on beauty, happiness, love, and redemption: all of those things that make living among the decay worthwhile. In one scene in which the protagonists walk through an empty Capitoline Museum (the Dying Gaul makes a guest appearance), it is clear that the price of beauty is decay. The beautiful abounds when we seek it out, recognize, and value it: cultures, artists, architects, and entire societies will eventually pass, but chasing beauty ensures that there is something preserved for the next one. It creates a tradition, which can, and has, extended for centuries. Rome’s decadence is our eternal fountainhead of inspiration.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Congratulations to Humanities Essay Prize Winner

Congratulations to Laura Jones (Classics `16) who was awarded the 2nd Prize in the Humanities Essay Prize Term I: 2013-14 (Level II) for her paper "Ancient Dress and Jewelry from Early Minoans to Hellenistic Greeks" written for Classics 2B03: Greek Art and Archaeology.

Ms. Jones provides a summary of her work:

The salient features of a particular culture can be reflected in the visible details of their dress and costume. Thus, the study of how the individuals of a nation dress has an ethnological significance which rationalizes a detailed exploration of it. The changes, as well as the continuity seen throughout the development of dress in the ancient world are both fascinating and educational topics. There are notable differences in dress from the Minoan period to the Hellenistic era, which can be examined through paintings, pottery, sculptures, and jewelry finds. Surprisingly, the most ancient culture that is discussed, the Minoans, had perhaps the most intricate and elaborate type of clothing in all of antiquity. An important aspect of Minoan culture is that they loved splendor and enjoyed artificial delights. The dress from this time period reflects this kind of a luxurious, stable culture. Mycenaeans borrowed most of their dress from their predecessors, the Minoans, but also added a few innovations that can be seen most vividly on pottery finds. Additionally, Archaic Greece saw many new alternatives in clothing and style preference. The well-known peplos and chiton were introduced in this period and continued for a long time, eventually creating innovations in the draping techniques later during the Classical era. The innovations in dress during the Classical period are particularly striking and are fortunately very easy to explore due to the large output of human-figured sculptures all over Greece at this time. Rather than using structure formality, stress focused on the soft fabrics which draped over the body in elegant and beautiful folds during the Classical era. Furthermore, Hellenistic Greek clothing was mostly about individuality and particularism, thus the strict ways of wearing garments disappeared. All of this development in ancient dress can be traced through several images presented throughout this essay, showing both continuity and changes. The noteworthy differences seen in Minoan dress through to the Hellenistic Greek world can be traced through various pieces of art and actual finds themselves. By exploring sculpture, frescos, pottery pieces, and even jewelry finds, one is able to draw many conclusions on that specific culture and time period. Thus, the topic of dress in the ancient realm is both intriguing and worth studying in detail.

For more information on the Humanities Essay Prize, follow this link: